Indigenous Research and Epistemology

How should we conduct research in cooperation and partnership with Indigenous communities? What does it mean for Indigenous scholars and students to do research within the colonial structures and settler epistemologies of Western universities? In this conversation moderated by Dr. Hector Perez, Dr. Kelly Laurila shares her perspectives and experiences on these questions.

Watch the highlights:

Remote video URL

Meet The Panelists

Dr. Hector Perez

Dr. Hector Perez (he/him) is an Age-Well postdoctoral fellow in the School of Public Health Sciences in the Faculty of Health at the University of Waterloo. Hector’s research interests include exploring the acceptance, usability, and adoption of innovations and Age-Tech solutions used by older adults and caregivers. His current research involves working with Indigenous first responders to develop training materials on how to address missing people living with dementia related incidents.

Dr. Kelly Laurila

Dr. Kelly Laurila (she/her) is an Indigenous Sámi and Irish woman with 27 years of lived Anishinaabe knowledge and experiences, song carrier of an Indigenous women and girls’ drum circle, social worker, academic scholar, and lecturer. She is also an advocate of ideological and social policy change pertaining to Indigenous child welfare and policing practices impacting Indigenous peoples and of reconciliation initiatives. 


Can Indigenous Research Paradigms exist within Western academia? Dr. Kelly Laurila and Dr. Hector Perez begin their conversation on this question by telling stories of how they’ve been able to do just that.

But the learning began even before that. Integrating Indigenous paradigms is more than just the methods or subject area of the research, but also in the way the results are presented. For that reason, our speakers chose to have this conversation with the seating arranged in a circle, to help all participants feel connected. After Dr. Laurila led the thanksgiving, in which everyone present gave thanks to the many living and non-living creatures all around us, she led a smudging ceremony, encouraging the in-person attendees to participate. She also encouraged us to connect with each other through song.

Dr. Laurila’s research specializes in using music and song as a form of Indigenous reconciliation. For one of her major projects, she facilitated meetings between a female Indigenous youth drum circle and the Waterloo Police music group. Considering the history of power imbalances and abuse, looking at forms of reconciliation between the police and Indigenous groups is key to creating a better, safer future. Still, this history of abuse hung over each meeting, and the acknowledgement and understanding of it was crucial for the groups to connect with each other. These meetings involved teaching and sharing songs with each other, eating together, and sharing knowledge. Each activity was critical to allow for healing and understanding.

To conduct this research, Dr. Laurila used Indigenous Research paradigms to create a trustful healing environment so that the participants gain the most benefits from the research. The following summarizes some of the key concepts, themes, and questions from the paradigm that she described.

Participant Trust

The researcher, Dr. Laurila in this case, is also a participant in the research itself, as she had worked with this Indigenous youth drum circle for a while prior to this research. Because of that, the girls knew her and trusted her throughout the research process. As there is a long history of abuse of Indigenous research participances, getting to know the participants prior to the research is key in creating a trusting relationship. 

My supervisor said to me when I wanted to do this research, ‘how is that going to help people? And so that's why I asked the women and girls, how is this research going to help you? ‘Because we wish for a future where our children, grandchildren, if they're in need, that they can go to the police,’ and I know that's a contested area but that's what this group of women and girls said.” - Dr. Laurila

Knowledge Ownership

Many researchers who have done research on and involving Indigenous peoples in the past have claimed the knowledge gained for themselves. This is highly disrespectful. Thus, Dr. Laurila ensured that the knowledge and teachings belong to the girls, not her.   Indigenous people and communities have a vulnerability when it comes to anyone doing research with them, because of the potential for teams to come to them, back to some of the research that's happened, you know, they have been told one reason for why a research project would happen, but there was also an underhanded second motive for the research. And so ethically, I [as a researcher] have to go beyond. Indigenous peoples have to have ownership of the data in any information related to them and they around self-determination. So, sovereignty over that information as well as control of how the information is used or stored [must be considered].” - Dr. Laurila 

Fitting Indigenous Ethics into Western Academic Ethics

This project straddled the worlds of Indigenous ethics and ethics requirements for Western academia. Often, she found that the two forms of ethics were difficult to reconcile. For instance, although Indigenous ethics value having relationships with the Indigenous participants prior to starting the research to gain trust, this is something that Western academia looks down upon. These two values systems can be in direct conflict. “One of the areas that I was challenged on in my research with the ethics people, is that knowledge would be coming through dreams, through smudging, through ceremony, through fasting on the land. I did lots of that and or through drumming and so they said, well, that's not a proof and knowledge base. And I said, but we already know what it is, and so there was a lot of back and forth. It's still challenging because I have to talk the language of an institution for them to understand, especially when they hold power to say yes or no, like funders as well as ethical ethics review bodies.” - Dr. Laurila 

Indigenous Research Paradigms Applied to You

How can you Indigenize your research?

Whether you are working with Indigenous participants or not, seeing how your research fits into an Indigenous Research Paradigm is helpful to examine your motivations and justifications for the research.

Dr. Laurila provided this diagram to visually outline an overview of this paradigm. The paradigm is presented as a circle, as many Indigenous knowledges are, to articulate the interconnectedness and flow of one form of knowledge to another form of knowledge.

The following sections and reflection questions will explore each of the elements of the paradigm, and present key questions you can ask yourself about your research.

The Centre: Who are you?

At the centre of all research is you, the researcher. Who are you, your roots, identity, and motivations effect all your decisions and parts of the research. One key factor is understanding how you fit in with the community you are researching if you are an insider or an outsider. This then helps you evaluate what you need to do to gain the community’s trust to conduct the research.

What is your positionality? What are your motivations for conducting this research? Are these motivations connected to your identity in some way? How or how not?

The East: Spiritual and Vision Knowledge

Dr. Laurila suggests that one way to start is by recognizing and understanding the effects of colonization on the ethics of the research. Ethical research practices involve developing considerations for the spirit of relationships, reciprocity, respect, responsibility, and accountability. Understanding each of these in relation to your project will allow for a better understanding of why the research is relevant.

How are colonial structures impacting your research? How do they shape your intentions and the forms of knowledge you will look to uncover and/or produce? What are the typical institutional ethics approvals required for your research? How might Indigenous ethics of relationality be in conflict with these institutional imperatives?

The South: Emotional and Relational Knowledge

Especially when conducting research with participants, it is key to think about how the participants exist and live in relation to the greater community. You also must look at the history of oppression or generational harm that might affect the participants’ ability to participate and their ability to trust you as a researcher. Relational development must happen before what is typically considered research and must continue afterwards.

How do you (or how might you) involve your participants in your research beyond data collection? What are some ways that you can build trust with the people involved with your research? Will this research resurface harm in the participants? If so, how would that be dealt with? Is the physical location where the research is being conducted conducive to healing? Who does your research belong to? Can you compare and contrast this model where participants have ownership of the knowledge to recent trend of public data sharing? How can you share ownership of your research with the participating communities?

The West: Mental and Cognitive Knowledge

A key factor of Indigenizing research is seeing the research questions through a holistic lens. This holistic perspective encourages you to think critically about how the different parts of the research – the conception, participants, interpretation of data, and mobilization of it - are connected.

What theory and methods are being used? Do they emphasize holism, connection, and/or trust? How are the various participants and researchers connected? How will to outcomes and/or outputs of the research connect back to the participants’ communities?

The North: Physical and Action Knowledge

The physical knowledge describes both the actual actions you take as the researcher to get the results and how those results are communicated. This is something that informs how you engage with participants in interviews, sharing circles, focus groups, and other interactions.  It also pertains to how the knowledge you produce is mobilized and what use you put it to in the world beyond academic publishing.

How can you mobilize your research to benefit the communities that participated in it? What form would the knowledge take in those venues or contexts? What supports would you require to accomplish this kind of knowledge translation? How might you measure the impact of this kind of knowledge mobilization?